ACHE receives $32.3 million donation to fund numerous research and wellness programs

by Michael Tilley ([email protected]) 2,706 views 

A $32.3 million anonymous donation to the Arkansas Colleges of Health Education will support a holistic approach to health and wellness and include partnerships with public schools, art centers, a community garden, and a Northwest Arkansas based culinary study center.

“We’ve been working on this since 2017 to pull all the pieces together,” ACHE CEO Kyle Parker told Talk Business & Politics on Tuesday (June 22). “This is a game changer, an absolute game changer.”

The donation creates an endowment that will pay for staff, program costs and construction. ACHE acquired the former Golden Living headquarters in 2020 for the purpose of housing a medical research facility and a health and wellness education center. Work on the five-story facility – now known as the ACHE Research Institute Health and Wellness Center – is underway and should be complete within two years, Parker said.

A unique food education program targeted to elementary students is one of the numerous programs, events and activities to be created by the donation announced Tuesday.

“Since 1990, our state has ranked in the bottom five states for health outcomes including health disparities and chronic disease. We have an amazing opportunity to promote healthy lifestyles through collaborative partnerships, civic engagement supporting health equity,” noted Dr. Elizabeth McClain, chief wellness officer at ACHE.

ACHE is partnering with Bentonville-based Brightwater: A Center for the Study of Food to develop an “Integrated Culinary Arts and Nutrition” class that will be piloted in 2021 at Ballman, Cook and Fairview Elementary Schools in Fort Smith.

“(T)eachers at Fairview, Cook, and Ballman elementary schools will begin teaching nutrition using mobile culinary teaching carts and Tower Gardens, an aeroponic indoor gardening system supplied by ACHE. Students will learn the impact of nutrition through gardening and cooking,” noted the ACHE statement.

Parker said students will receive a “4D effect” in food education because they will learn about food, grow it, harvest it and cook it. A primary goal, he said, is to address health issues related to food early in the life cycle and “change the culture” of food consumption. One event in the course will include student cooking for their parents at the culinary labs now under construction at the Research Institute Health and Wellness Center.

“Why that is special, is because it brings families back together to a dinner table. … It’s part of overall wellness,” Parker said.

Following are some of the other programs and projects ACHE announced Tuesday. (Talk Business & Politics will in upcoming weeks and months report in more detail on today’s announcement.)

• The inside of the ACHE Research Institute Health and Wellness Center will house a community art gallery in partnership with the Fort Smith Regional Art Museum and the Center for Art Education in Van Buren. The program will include art instruction for students and the community, an artist in residence program, and a performing arts theatre for productions and dance.

• An art walk, community classroom, and food gardens will be located outside the ACHE Research Institute Health and Wellness Center. There will also be a multi-use trail system that surrounds a small lake, three to four miles of trails for mountain bikes, a one-mile ADA accessible trail, a children’s bike park, and more than 1000 square feet of a tree canopy trail.

• ACHE’s nutrition program diversity will provide opportunities for culinary education to include international meals, exposure to new foods and wine and beverage pairings. “These programs will be available to individuals, community organizations and groups, such as corporate/employee groups, who want to experience creative options to improve their nutrition and health,” ACHE noted.

• A mobility lab will provide “physical activity as medicine” research for all ages and levels of ability. ACHE is working with public schools and other community organizations on delivering this service. “Developing habits of regular physical activity are associated with reduced risk of obesity and chronic disease in individuals at all ages. Physical activity has also been associated with improved cognitive functions and academic performance in children,” ACHE noted.

“This is a transformational moment for Fort Smith, the surrounding region, and with empirical proof of success, the entire State. It is transformational in education for our children, transformational for this region, and transformational in creating a healthier living environment for everyone. None of this could have happened without the incredible anonymous gift of a family that loves this community and is making a difference in all of our lives,” Parker said.

ACHE was formed when Fort Smith-based Degen Foundation used part of $70 million from the sale of Sparks Health System in November 2009 to what was then Naples, Fla.-based Health Management Associates to build the Arkansas College of Osteopathic Medicine (ARCOM) at Chaffee Crossing. The $32.4 million college and its 103,000 square feet is now home to 600 medical students. ACHE has since built a 66,000-square-foot College of Health Science building on the campus that is home to physical therapy and occupational therapy degree programs.